La Rochelle building towards Leinster showdown: “The games sometimes come with a bit of a health warning!”

Ronan O'Gara's side are aiming for a repeat of the 2023 Champions Cup final in Dublin

La Rochelle may be the reigning European champions as well as becoming the first side to win an away Champions Cup knockout game over the last two seasons, but they enter this weekend’s quarter-final against Leinster as underdogs.

After last Saturday’s dramatic 22-21 victory away at the Stormers, Ronan O’Gara’s side now travel to Dublin to play the four-time champions who are desperate to add another star to their jersey.

Leinster have lost three finals since they last lifted the trophy six years ago and La Rochelle may hold the psychological advantage having beaten the Irish province 27-26 in last year’s finale at the Aviva Stadium.

And assistant coach Donnacha Ryan is under no illusion about the challenge ahead of his side this weekend.

“They’ve been one of the best teams in Europe for a very long time, and they are still there all the time,” Ryan said. 

“Our ambition is to obviously be successful as well and try to win the tournament. So, when you’re at the top, you will be playing the same teams more often, and they have been serious battles.

“They are very intense games, and I think that is why they are a pleasure to watch. The games sometimes come with a bit of a health warning as they can be quite intense, but that is good for us as the boys love testing themselves against the best in the world.”

“This is what we love about the competition - just how tough it is,” added lock Will Skeleton. “We are ambitious about what we want to conquer this year and I think we are building as a team.”

The pedigree of the French side cannot be questioned as they haven’t tasted defeat in a Champions Cup knockout game since the 2021 final against Toulouse.

Likewise, this is a competition which has become synonymous with Skelton, with the Australian winning four titles - two at Saracens and two with La Rochelle.

And it is those high standards that Les Jaune et Noir will have to hit in Dublin on Saturday evening.

Many around the club would have been disappointed to lose 16-9 at home to Leinster in the pool stages, but despite this being Jack Nowell’s inaugural campaign with the French side, he is aware of what is now expected of La Rochelle due to their recent success on the continent. 

He said: “Sometimes it can get pretty dark when you are losing, and there are boys that have been here for a while that found it tough to take, and I hate losing too.

“But I feel like we are in the position, and we have the team where we can certainly win.”

The former England international has loved every second since joining La Rochelle after being seduced by the club’s ability to see out tight European fixtures when deciding upon his move to France.

Nowell has enjoyed being part of this European machine, as witnessed in his display against the Stormers last weekend with the champions overturning a 16-0 deficit in Cape Town.

“I still want to win trophies, and that is obviously a massive thing for the club,” added Nowell, who lifted the Champions Cup with Exeter Chiefs back in 2020.

“They’ve won two Champions Cups in the last two years and it would be brilliant to do it with this team, while there is a desperation within the lads to win.”

O’Gara has taken his side to Cork, setting up base in his home county in preparation for this massive clash against Leinster.

And while the former Munsterman will need no motivation ahead of facing his old foes, preparing for Saturday’s showdown in Ireland is seen as a benefit to prop forward Joel Sclavi.

"For me, it is what we needed,” Sclavi said. “I think this gives us more possibility to speak together, go for coffee. I think it is a good moment because we will only play finals now for the rest of the season.”

But one man who needs no education about facing Leinster is second-row Ultan Dillane.

The 30-year-old has been a revelation since his move from Connacht, becoming an integral part of the La Rochelle squad.

Dillane spent eight years with Connacht and became familiar with the daunting challenge of facing Leinster but he embraces it for what it means.

He said: “The old saying is that if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and they are definitely up there.

“It is not fun always having to face Leinster each season, and I’m definitely not the only person thinking that. 

“Quite a few of the boys have done it a year more than I have, and the fact that we had them earlier in the season and we have them once again is just that hurdle—the inevitable hurdle if you want to get through this competition, but I’m sure they are feeling the same.”

All eyes will be on Stade Rochelais and O’Gara as they look to upset the odds and beat Leinster once again in Dublin to move a step closer to a third consecutive Champions Cup title.


European Rugby Champions Cup Points Table